Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 119


It was crowded and busy inside, with four harried clerks behind a battered wooden counter, scribbling and stamping, carrying bundles of paper to and fro, taking money and conveying it carefully into an inner office, from which they issued moments later, bearing receipts on japanned tin trays.

A crush of impatient men pressed against the counter, each endeavoring to signal by means of voice and posture that his business was much more urgent than that of the fellow standing next him. Once Roger had succeeded in capturing the attention of one of the clerks, though, there turned out to be no great difficulty in seeing the registers of the ships that had sailed from Inverness within the last few months.

“Here, wait,” he said to the young man who pushed a large, leather-bound book across the counter to him.

“Aye?” The clerk was flushed with hurry, and had a smut of ink on his nose, but paused politely, arrested in flight.

“How much d’ye get paid for working here?” Roger asked.

The clerk’s fair eyebrows lifted, but he was in too much hurry either to ask questions or to take offense at the inquiry.

“Six shillings the week,” he said briefly, and promptly disappeared in response to an irritable shout of “Munro!” from the office beyond the counter.

“Mmphm.” Roger pushed back through the crowd and took the book of registers away to a small table by the window, out of the main stream of traffic.

Having seen the conditions under which the clerks worked, Roger was impressed at the legibility of the handwritten registers. He was well accustomed to archaic spelling and eccentric punctuation, though those he was used to seeing were always yellowed and fragile, on the verge of disintegration. It gave him an odd little historian’s thrill to see the page before him fresh and white, and just beyond, the clerk who sat at a high table, copying as fast as quill could write, shoulders hunched against the hubbub in the room.

You’re shilly-shallying, said a cold little voice in the middle of his brain. She’s here or she’s not; being afraid to look won’t change it. Get on!

Roger took a deep breath and flipped open the big ledger book. The ships’ names were neatly lettered at the tops of pages, followed by the names of their masters and mates, their main cargoes and dates of sailing. Arianna. Polyphemus. Merry Widow. Tiburon. Despite his apprehensions, he couldn’t help admiring the names of the ships as he thumbed through the pages.

Half an hour later, he had ceased to marvel over both poetry and picturesqueness, barely noting each ship’s name as he ran his finger down the pages in increasing desperation. Not here, she wasn’t here!

But she had to be, he argued with himself. She had to have taken a ship to the Colonies, where else could she bloody be? Unless she hadn’t found the notice, after all…but the sick feeling under his ribs assured him that she had; nothing else would have made her risk the stones.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, which were starting to feel the strain of the handwritten pages. Then he opened his eyes, turned back to the first relevant register, and began to read again, doggedly muttering each name beneath his breath, to be sure of not missing one out.

Mr. Phineas Forbes, gentleman.

Mrs. Wilhelmina Forbes.

Master Joshua Forbes.

Mrs. Josephine Forbes.

Mrs. Eglantine Forbes.

Mrs. Charlotte Forbes…

He smiled to himself at the thought of Mr. Phineas Forbes, surrounded by his womenfolk. Even knowing that “Mrs.” here was sometimes merely the abbreviated form of “Mistress,” and thus used for both married and unmarried women—rather than the “Miss” for little girls—he found himself with an irresistible mental picture of Phineas marching stoutly aboard at the head of a train of four wives, Master Joshua no doubt bringing up the rear.

Mr. William Talbot, merchant.

Mr. Peter Talbot, merchant.

Mr. Jonathan Bicknell, physician.

Mr. Robert MacLeod, farmer.

Mr. Gordon MacLeod, farmer.

Mr. Martin MacLeod…

No Randalls this time through, either. Not for the Persephone, the Queen’s Revenge, or the Phoebe. He rubbed his aching eyes, and began on the register of the Phillip Alonzo. A Spanish name, but it was listed under Scottish registry. Sailing from Inverness, under the command of Captain Patrick O’Brian.

He hadn’t given up, but had already begun to think what to do next, if she should not be listed in the registers. Lallybroch, of course. He had been there once, in his own time, to the abandoned remains of the estate; could he find it now, without the guidance of roads and signposts?

His thoughts stopped with a jolt as his gliding finger came to a halt, near the bottom of a page. Not Brianna Randall, not the name he’d been looking for, but a name that rang bells of recognition in his mind. Fraser, read the slanted, crisp black writing. Mr. Brian Fraser. No, not Brian. And not Mr., either. He bent closer, squinting at the cramped black lettering.

He closed his eyes, feeling his heart thump hard in his chest, and relief flowed through him, intoxicating as the pub’s special dark beer. Mrs., not Mr. And what had first seemed merely an exuberant tail on the “n” of Brian was on closer inspection almost surely instead a careless “a.”

Her, it was her, it had to be! It was an unusual first name—he had seen no other Briannas or Brianas anywhere in the massive register. And even Fraser made sense, of a sort; embarked on a quixotic quest to find her father, she had taken his name, the name she was entitled to by right of birth.

He slammed the register closed, as though to keep her from escaping from the pages, and sat for a moment, breathing. Got her! He saw the fairhaired clerk eyeing him curiously from the counter and, flushing, opened the book again.

The Phillip Alonzo. Sailed from Inverness on the fourth of July, Anno Domini 1769. For Charleston, South Carolina.

He frowned at the name, suddenly uncertain. South Carolina. Was that her real destination, or only as close as she could get? A quick glance at the rest of the registers showed no ships in July for North Carolina. Perhaps she had simply taken the first ship for the southern colonies, intending to journey overland.

Or maybe he was wrong. A chill gripped him that had nothing to do with the river wind seeping through the cracks of the window next to him. He looked at the page again, and was reassured. No, there was no profession given, as there was for all the men. It was certainly “Mrs.” and therefore it must be “Briana” as well. And if “Briana” it was, then Brianna it was, too, he knew it.

He rose and handed the book across the counter to his fair-haired acquaintance.

“Thanks, man,” he said, relaxing into his own soft accent. “Can ye be tellin’ me, is there a ship in port bound for the American Colonies soon, now?”

“Oh, aye,” the clerk said, deftly stowing the register with one hand and accepting a bill of lading from a customer with the other. “Happen it will be Gloriana; she sails day after tomorrow for the Carolinas.” He looked Roger up and down. “Emigrant or seaman?” he asked.

“Seaman,” Roger said promptly. Ignoring the other’s raised eyebrow, he waved toward the forest of masts visible through the paned windows. “Where do I go to sign on?”

Both eyebrows high, the clerk nodded in the direction of the door.

“Her master works from the Friars when he’s in port. Likely he’ll be there now—Captain Bonnet.” He forbore adding what was obvious from his skeptical expression; if Roger was a seaman, he, the clerk, was an African parrot.

“Right, mo ghille. Thanks.” Sketching a salute, Roger turned away, but turned back at the door to find the clerk still watching him, ignoring the press of impatient customers.

“Wish me luck!” Roger called, with a grin.

The clerk’s answering grin was tinged with something that might have been either admiration or wistfulness.

“Luck to ye, man!” he called, and waved in farewell. By the time the door swung shut, he was deep in conversation with the next customer, quill pen poised in readiness.

He found Captain Bonnet in the pub, as advertised, settled in a corner under a thick blue haze of smoke, to which the Captain’s own cigar was adding.

“Your name?”

“MacKenzie,” Roger said on sudden impulse. If Brianna could do it, so could he.

“MacKenzie. Any experience, Mr. MacKenzie?”

A bar of sunlight cut across the Captain’s face, making him squint. Bonnet drew back into the shadow of the settle, and the lines around his eyes relaxed, leaving Roger exposed to a gaze of uncomfortable penetration.

“It is myself has fished the herring now and then, in the Minch.”

It was no lie, at that; he’d had several teenage summers as hand on a herring boat captained by an acquaintance of the Reverend’s. The experience had left him with a useful layer of muscle, an ear for the singsong cadence of the Isles, and a fixed dislike of herring. But he knew the feel of a rope in his hands, at least.

“Ah, ye’re a good-sized lad. But a fisherman will not be the same as a sailor, sure.” The man’s soft Irish lilt left it open whether this was question, statement—or provocation.

“I shouldna have thought it an occupation requiring great skill.” For no reason he could name, Captain Bonnet raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

The green eyes sharpened.

“Perhaps more than ye think—but sure it’s nothing a willing man can’t learn. But what would it be, now, that makes a fellow of your sort crave the sea of a sudden?”

The eyes flickered in the tavern’s shadows, taking him in. Of your sort. What was it? Roger wondered. Not his speech—he had taken care to suppress any hint of the Oxford scholar, by taking on the “teuchter” cant of the Isles. Was he too well dressed for a would-be sailor? Or was it the singed collar and the burn mark on the breast of his coat?

“That will be none of your business, I am thinking,” he answered evenly. With a minor effort, he kept his hands relaxed at his sides.

The pale green eyes studied him dispassionately, unblinking. Like a leopard watching a passing wildebeest, Roger thought, wondering whether it would be worth the chase.

The heavy lids dropped; not worth it—for the moment.

“You’ll be aboard by sundown,” Bonnet said. “Five shillings the month, meat three days in the week, plum duff on Sundays. You’ll have a hammock, but find your own clothes. You will be free to leave the ship once the cargo is unloaded, not until that time. We are agreed, sir?”

“It is agreed,” Roger said, suddenly dry-mouthed. He would have given a lot for a pint, but not now, not here, under that pale green gaze.

“Ask for Mr. Dixon when yez come aboard. He’s paymaster.” Bonnet leaned back, took a small leather-bound book from his pocket and flipped it open. Audience concluded.

Roger turned smartly and went out, without a backward glance. There was a small cold spot at the base of his skull. If he looked back, he knew, he would see that lucent green gaze fixed unwaveringly over the edge of the unread book, taking note of every weakness.

The cold spot, he thought, was where the teeth would meet.